The Sitton brothers: From rags to riches
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
Noel, Fendoll and George Sitton arrived on the Colorado Plateau in the early part of the 20th Century. They came hoping to escape the poverty of their Missouri boyhoods and had high hopes of making it big in the wild west with free land (homesteads), strong backs and the inborn determination to never give up.
They homesteaded farmland east of Monticello near the state line. In those early days, it was cheaper to hire teachers to teach a few kids in the rural areas than it was to build expensive buildings and bus them many miles to the nearest towns. Thus, the brothers became school teachers to supplement the unforgiving land, the droughts, the early freezes and all the other challenges associated with making a living off the land at 7,000 feet above sea level.
In l925, they decided they would never obtain their dreams clearing land of sagebrush by hand with a grubbing hoe and teaching a few children for fewer dollars per day.
In l926, area homesteaders won their first small battle for state recognition and freedom from the grinding isolation. It was daily mail service. The Sitton Brothers bid on and won the first mail contract from Dove Creek to Dolores for $300 per month.
And thus started the first of their many business ventures which eventually led to success and wealth. Their first foray into the world of commerce was in the trucking business. They pooled their resources. Noel sold land; Fendoll sold his 1924 Chevrolet.
With those funds, they purchased a Graham truck and a l926 Dodge touring car and considered themselves in the trucking business.
They knew they would never come out on the mail route alone, so they offered the first passenger and freight service available going east from the Monticello-Dove Creek area to Dolores. They charged $3 per round trip. Women got to ride in the cab. Everyone else rode in the back of the truck wedged in among the mail and freight and endured the dust, rain, snow or whatever was the order of the day. In those days, trucks were generally no bigger than large pickups are now.
The first day on the mail run, Fendoll returned with 27 silver dollars. After dividing the days take, the brothers figured they were in high clover, having made almost as much as they made teaching school for a week. But the euphoria was short lived.
The next day it started to rain and it created a 68-mile bog on the dirt roads of the day between Dove Creek and Dolores. No motorized vehicle moved for three weeks, including the Sitton mail and freight truck.
But the mail contract said the “lock-sack” had to be delivered every day. So in order to keep the contract, Fendoll lived on the east end of the route, Noel lived on the west, and they would drive as far each day as they could. Then Noel would hoist the lock-sack on his back and walk until he met Fendoll coming from the opposite direction. They would continue on to the other’s vehicle, and that way, they were each able to be at home every other night in bad weather.
That was the beginning of 20 years of trucking “the hard way.” They hauled everything anyone needed, including live hogs, chickens, groceries and fresh cream.
The Sitton Brothers mail truck was the only outlet for farm produce in the Monticello-Dove Creek area for many years. They charged a penny a pound. When the big truck was full of squealing pigs, they pressed the old Dodge into service for the mail and passengers.
It was a hard life, but they persevered and were awarded the PUC permit #63, which was grandfathered in and allowed them to operate anywhere. This permit became worth a small fortune when the rules and regulations to which later truckers were bound came into existence.
The Sittons always maintained that the early truckers deserved a place in western history, along with the fur trappers and river runners. They blazed the trails for what has become one of the nation’s great industries.
It is nothing short of a miracle that they never had a driver seriously injured. They were not required to have insurance and for years they could not afford any. One day they had a truckload of cement run off the road into the Colorado River at Moab. The driver got out, but the truck and all its contents was almost a complete loss. This was the start of events that eventually led to the purchase of insurance, whether or not they could afford it.
Hauling cattle to market became a big part of the business later on, after they had expanded their operation. “It seems preposterous now that we didn’t know enough to put a stock rack on the cattle trucks. But we had never seen one. We tied the cows heads down with a rope to keep them from jumping out of our truck.”
One day in Salt Lake City, Noel saw a truck with a metal cattle rack. He raced home. That night, he and Bill Lindquist worked all night building a stock rack for a truck. The next morning, without a wink of sleep, they loaded cattle and didn’t tie a single head down. Cattle racks soon became common.
Traveling on the trucks in those early days was about the only way family members could leave the isolation of the Four Corners. The Sittons took their families to Salt Lake City and Denver and many other places when there was room for them. They also allowed their drivers to take family members when space allowed.
Expensive losses were part of the business. Once a driver got “rummed up” and hit the brakes hard with a load of cows. All the cows got out of the truck, and disappeared into the surrounding mountains.
Noel figured it would be cheaper to pay the owner than try to hire people to go find the cows. It cost $400, which was several months’ wages for men in those days.
They lost another load of cows between Bluff and Mexican Hat coming up Navajo Hill out of Comb Wash on the 22 percent dirt road grade. The cows slipped to the back of the trailer and it flipped up and dumped them all out.
There was hardly any traffic in those days, so Noel slept under the truck in the middle of the dugway until George came looking for him. George had recently purchased a small grocery store in Blanding. Between them, they rounded up the load, and made it safely to their destination.
Once, while hauling a combine from Salt Lake City, Noel’s truck lodged under the old Green River Bridge. He was trying to figure out how to get his load unstuck when a young boy came a long and after assessing the problem, suggested that Noel let the air out of his tires. He did, and he was soon on his way home.
Said Noel many times in later years, “Never underestimate the wisdom of youth.” He lived by those words, and said that was probably why he had such a perfect working relationship with his son, Robert, who became his life-long business partner later on.
The Sittons hauled the first tractor to the Dove Creek area. It was a beautiful new green John Deere, purchased by their brother-in-law, Oliver Hayes. Said Noel, “The whole country thought he was crazy or lazy.” The first year Oliver nearly lost the tractor because a drought destroyed most of the crop. But he persevered and prospered and was the catalyst that sold many other farmers in the Four Corners area on the idea of mechanization.
Fendoll recalled hauling a load of laying chickens to the Railroad at Gallup, NM. From there, they hired a man to ride in the rail car with the chickens to California. The man’s pay was all the eggs the hens laid enroute, which he sold upon arrival.
Another time, Fendoll was hauling a load of turkeys from the Adams Ranch in Monticello to Delta, CO. He stopped at an irrigation ditch to fill his boiling truck radiator. In the process he saw a large trout in the ditch.
He grabbed the end-gate from the truck, blocked the ditch, jumped in and caught the fish with his bare hands. That night the chef at the LaCourt Hotel in Grand Junction cooked it for Fendoll’s dinner.
In the early days of the Sitton’s trucking operation, it was free enterprise everywhere. Gradually restrictions began to be imposed. These restrictions were the reason the Sittons got into the mercantile business. Truckers could operate without permits, as long as their loads were sold through their own stores. The Brothers purchased outright, or were partners with stores in Cahone, two in Dove Creek, one at Park Acres, two in Monticello and one in Blanding.
Dove Creek is today known far and wide as the “Pinto Been Capital of the World”, but it was not always so. The first crop was planted in l929 by Jim Posey. It took him three years to sell it.
Farmers did not begin to grow the speckled bean in large numbers until a few years before World War II. Fendoll Sitton started the Dove Creek Brand Bean Company, and Sitton trucks hauled thousands of sacks of pinto beans to railheads in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona during the war. Fendoll was also the man who built the huge concrete bean elevator just west of Dove Creek, which is still visible from up to 40 miles today.
Vanadium and uranium hauling was another big part of the Sitton Trucking Company. Fendoll bought the O’Neal mines near Dove Creek and they hauled all their own ore to Durango before the mill was built at Monticello.
Charlie Steen lived in Dove Creek for several years before discovering his fabulous MiVida Mine in the Big Indian area north of Monticello. William McCormick of Dove Creek grubstaked Charlie while he was prospecting in that area and that small investment later made McCormick Dove Creek’s second millionaire.
Sitton trucks hauled all the cement that built the vanadium-uranium mill in Monticello. When the mill in Monticello became operational, the Sitton Brothers hauled much of their own ore to Monticello.
Once the boys decided to round up wild horses and ship them back east by rail. They hired Tuffy Woods, a local cowboy, to round them up. After the work was done, the Sittons discovered that the horses were too wild to load and keep inside the racks they had at the time. So Tuffy and his crew cowboyed them all the way to the rail station at Thompson.
Said Noel, “When we first came to this country, some of the most thrilling sights we ever saw was watching a herd of wild horses racing along the skyline as the sun set.”
The brothers built a wheat elevator in Monticello, which was later sold to Eddie Saul. There they cleaned and stored the wheat and eventually hauled it to market. One season, Noel inadvertently failed to list one load for Frank Redd of Monticello.
That fall, when Redd had time to audit his books, he discovered the error and voluntarily came to the elevator and handed Noel a check for $1,000. “He was one of the most honest men I ever knew,” Noel said on many occasions thereafter.
People showed their appreciation for the Sitton Brothers Trucking business in many ways. One fall, after hauling Carl Barton’s sheep to market, Carl came in to the business and presented them with a lovely Utah Woolen Mills blanket as a “thank-you” momento.
Another man drove a hundred miles out of his way to pay a $15 bill he had neglected to pay. The Sittons always extended credit to customers. Most was collected but “some of it ended up on the bonfire”, when men had a run of bad luck or lost their farms in hard times.
Fendoll hit it big when he purchased the “Radium Seven” uranium mine. He begged his brothers to go in with him, but they considered it too risky. Fendoll mortgaged everything he had to acquire the property. It turned out to be his best investment.
Until Charlie Steen made his strike with the MiVida, Fendoll Sitton controlled and shipped more uranium ore than anyone in the United States. He became Dove Creek’s first millionaire.
World War II changed the Sitton’s lives. They began to diversify. They were brothers but they were also individuals.
Noel made his son Robert an offer he could not refuse when he returned from military service in l945. They remained business partners until Noel passed away. Robert married Betty Jensen, daughter of Hans and Della Jensen of Monticello and they purchased a home on Uranium Circle in Monticello, where they lived for several years with their young family.
Noel’s daughter Fern married Gordon Woods. He was the postmaster in Monticello for nearly 30 years, and Fern was a registered nurse who worked in the health care system in Monticello and San Juan County until her retirement.
Noel found a new interest in Monticello…politics. He served for 12 years on the San Juan County Commission. He was most proud of helping Monticello to get a new water system.
When the Vanadium Corporation of America asked County Leaders to give them permission to build the uranium mill in Monticello in the l940’s,
Noel was instrumental in the negotiations which lead to the city trading water shares for a water storage and delivery system for the town.
But Noel was not done with Dove Creek. He built the first movie theatre there and drove every night for 16 years with his wife from their home in Monticello to run the show in Dove Creek.
Perhaps the best investment the Sitton Brothers ever made, except for Fendoll’s uranium interests, was the purchase of a 4,000-acre ranch between Monticello and Dove Creek. They hit oil, found uranium, grazed a lot of cows, loved the land and, to this day, the heirs of the Sitton Brothers still own the mineral rights on that vast tract.
As the brothers aged, they decided to pull up stakes and move to Arizona. Noel and Fendoll lived in Scottsdale and George and his wife wintered with them when things got cold on the Colorado Plateau.
Considering that they were virtually penniless when they arrived from Missouri shortly after the turn of the century, it could be said that they truly lived the American Dream. When asked about it, they would laugh and reply, “If we had known enough about what we did to dream about it, we never would have gotten it done.”
Noel’s son Robert summed it up with, “ Betty and I raised four kids in a nice home with green grass, orange trees and palms in the yard, a car in the garage and a boat in the driveway, but my children missed something I had when I grew up that I wouldn’t trade for anything. They never lived in Monticello, Utah or Dove Creek, Colorado”
Many of the Sitton Family went “home” when they died and are today buried in the Dove Creek City Cemetery. Their sterling example of “anything is possible with enough hard work” will influence their posterity and the rest of us for generations to come.